Dramatic change in the Japanese film industry occurs about as frequently as dramatic change at Mount Fuji, which last erupted in 1707.
Every year, the box-office top 10 is dominated by releases from Toho, which are mainly new installments of tried-and-true anime franchises or live-action films based on TV series or manga. And as reliably as the sunrise, graying industry figures weigh in on the sad state of Japanese cinema, with some predicting its imminent demise. Yet the industry lumbers on, like a dinosaur oblivious to the giant meteor in the sky.
A long-time symbol of that conservative mindset is the Japan Academy, an industry organization that bestows annual awards, similar to Hollywood’s Oscars. Since its inception in 1977, the Japan Academy prize for best picture has generally gone to films by industry stalwarts backed by major studios, including Yoji Yamada (director of Shochiku’s long-running “Tora-san” series), Kinji Fukasaku (maker of Toei’s seminal “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” yakuza action series) and Hayao Miyazaki (creator of many a hit anime distributed by Toho).
One reason, critics say, is that voters for the Japan Academy prizes include employees of said studios, who automatically check the box for their company’s releases. “Shochiku, Toho, Toei and sometimes Nikkatsu pass (the awards) around,” said director and comedian Takeshi Kitano at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2014. Kitano’s comment may have been sour grapes — he has never won the Japan Academy’s best picture prize — but it’s also more right than wrong.
So when Eiji Uchida’s LGBTQ-themed drama “Midnight Swan” took best picture honors this year, and its star Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, who plays an aging transgender nightclub performer, was named best actor, it was as if Mount Fuji started to rumble.
The film’s distributor, Kino Films, is a mid-sized player in the local market, while Uchida, who was born in Brazil in 1971 and came to Japan at age 10, is an industry outsider. He made his international breakthrough with 2013’s black comedy “Greatful Dead” and garnered overseas festival invitations with his subsequent films. However, he was still toiling in the low-budget indie vineyards when he directed “Midnight Swan.”
Also, Kusanagi, who was once ubiquitous on TV as a member of the pop group SMAP, encountered a career rough patch after the group dissolved in 2016 and he, along with two other former SMAP members, departed the powerful Johnny & Associates agency. TV work dried up, as did starring roles in films.
But the strong bond that develops between Kusanagi’s character and her young ballerina niece, played by newcomer Kisaki Hattori, resonated with audiences, who turned “Midnight Swan” into a surprise hit that earned around ¥717 million at the box office. However, compared to the 21 Japanese films released by major distributors last year that made ¥1 billion or more in 2020, including the ¥36.55 billion raked in by the mega-hit anime “Demon Slayer,” the triumph of “Midnight Swan” was relatively modest. Even so, Japan Academy voters selected the film over its more commercial competition.
The ground also shook when the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) announced on March 15 that it was making major changes for its 34th edition, scheduled for Oct. 30-Nov. 8. The biggest was the appointment of Shozo Ichiyama, a respected producer and co-founder of the Tokyo Filmex festival, as programming director, replacing Yoshi Yatabe, who had held that post since 2004.
Ichiyama, who has worked with renowned Asian auteurs such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Samira Makhmalbaf and Jia Zhangke, promises to transform TIFF, which has never been able to shake its early reputation as a festival run by and for the major distributors, with art taking a second place to commerce. Its directors and staff have long been drawn from the ranks of those distributors and, though Yatabe made a valiant effort to improve the quality of the programming, such as starting a section for new Japanese indie films in 2004, TIFF has long lagged behind the rival Busan International Film Festival, which is widely regarded as Asia’s most prestigious film event.
Following his appointment, Ichiyama told the press that “TIFF is about to undergo a major transformation. I hope I can make full use of my experience and knowledge to contribute to it.”
There has already been one notable change: On International Women’s Day, which took place March 8, TIFF officially signed the gender parity charter launched at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, with a pledge to promote gender equality in festival staffing and programming selection.
At Tokyo Filmex, which launched in 2000, Ichiyama used his extensive contacts to secure titles by noted Asian auteurs, while selecting the pick of Venice and other major foreign festivals for the competition section. He and festival director Kanako Hayashi made Filmex a festival for serious cinephiles, with a strong focus on independent Asian cinema. They also nurtured young up-and-coming filmmakers from East and Southeast Asia with the Talent Tokyo program for project development and professional training.
The upcoming edition of Filmex will be held concurrently with TIFF, as was the case last year, though with Ichiyama bringing a more Filmex-like approach to TIFF, the rationale for the smaller festival is in question.
With TIFF’s larger budget and higher profile, Ichiyama can dream bigger dreams than he could at Filmex, though dealing with the local industry, accustomed to using TIFF to promote its fall and winter slates, could turn into a nightmare. Whether or not he raises its status closer to that of the Cannes, Venice and Berlin festivals — the aspiration of many a TIFF director but never yet realized — the fact of his appointment means that TIFF is no longer satisfied with business as usual.
Do Uchida’s success and Ichiyama’s rise signal that the tectonic plates are finally shifting beneath the industry as a whole, bringing it out of its domestically-focused dormant state to something closer to the international standard? Expect more rumbles any time; eruptions into real change, though, will take longer.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.